You probably don’t hear the word “lust” very often outside of church these days. If, like me, you grew up in the heyday of evangelical Purity Culture, you probably heard it a lot! But even then, the concept often brought as much confusion as clarity.
Thankfully, God’s Word gives us everything we need to know about lust—what it is, why it’s wrong, and how to deal with it.
The Definition of Lust
Confusion around the idea of “lust” didn’t begin with Purity Culture—it goes back to some of the earliest usage of the word. “Lust” first carried the meaning of sensual desire, appetite, or pleasure. Gradually, it became associated with “lusts of the flesh” in the English Bible and took on the meaning of sinful sexual desire or sinful desires in general.
Even hundreds of years ago, there was sometimes ambiguity about whether lust simply meant pleasure or desire, or if it was something inherently sinful. Even among Christians, these different meanings have often blurred and people have assumed that strong desire or pleasure are somehow sinful.
Lust in the Bible
When we look to God’s Word, we can find clarity about what lust is. First, let’s look at the Old Testament. The Hebrew word avah is sometimes translated as “lust,” sometimes as “craving” or “desire.” Another word is chamad which makes its most important appearance in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet.” It’s related to the idea of being desirable or pleasing.
In the New Testament, the word for lust is epithumia. It carries the same range of meanings as the Hebrew. With all these biblical words, the context shows us when it’s talking about something sinful.
See related: Verses and Principles About Overcoming Temptation
List of passages that talk about lust
- Numbers 11:4, “The riffraff among them had a strong craving (lust) for other food.”
- Exodus 20:17, “Do not covet (lust after) your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
- Proverbs 6:25, “Don’t lust in your heart for her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyelashes.”
- Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
- James 1:14, “But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire.”
- James 4:1, “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?”
- Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want.
- Colossians 3:5, “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.”
What are some examples of lust in the Bible?
We learn the most about lust by looking at the Bible stories that describe it in detail.
Lust in the Garden of Eden
First, all the way back in Genesis 3, we find the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. When Eve looked at the tree, we’re told that it was “pleasing to the eyes” (from avah) and “desirable to make one wise” (from chamad). So both our Hebrew words for “lust” appear in this passage! This tells us that the tree had certain qualities that made it attractive and hence made Eve susceptible to lust. But we know that the tree wasn’t bad itself—God put it there. So it was these qualities of the tree combined with the desires of Eve’s own heart that brought forth lust.
Because of her lust, she ignored God’s command and followed her desires instead, taking what did not belong to her and suffering the consequences of her sin. This is exactly what happens each time we lust! It occurs when we fix our desires on something attractive that doesn’t belong to us and allow them to stay there.
David’s Sin of Lust
2 Samuel 11 tells us David’s great sin—how he committed adultery with Bathsheba, got her pregnant, then murdered her husband to cover it up. However, all these horrible sins began with lust. The chapter begins with David looking out over his balcony and noticing a beautiful woman next door. Instead of turning away, David lusted after her, and his lustful passion drove him to commit terrible sins that haunted him for the remainder of his life.
Adultery of the Heart
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus connected lust to the sin of adultery: “But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” applies to our thoughts, not just our actions.
Jesus is not saying that a lustful glance is just as bad as having sex with someone else’s wife. But he is saying that both sins have the same root. Furthermore, a lustful glance unchecked becomes a lustful fixation, which turns into acts of lust, as we saw with David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11.
See related: How to Stop Thinking About Porn
What Causes Lust
James 1:14 explains the cause of lust and how it blooms into more noticeable sins. “But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.”
Notice the progression: Temptation leads to desire, desire leads to sin, and sin leads to death! That’s a sobering teaching, but an important one.
The Connection Between Lust and Greed
Usually, we think about greediness in relation to money, but Ephesians 5:5 connects greed to sexual immorality. “For know and recognize this: Every sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
Why is this? Because at its heart, lust is not just desire but fixation on something that’s not yours. We see this in the biblical examples of lust. It’s true with our lust struggles as well. A struggle with pornography is a struggle with the desire to look at—and sexually enjoy—something apart from God’s design.
See related: The Essential Reason Porn Is Wrong
How to Know if You’re Lusting
Based on these passages, how do you know if you’re lusting? If you’re a young person, you likely experience strong sexual feelings and desires. Are these feelings lust? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder.
See related: How to Overcome Lust as a Teenager
1. Understand That Sexual Desire Does Not Equal Lust
Lust is closely related to sexual desire. But simply having sexual feelings doesn’t mean you’re lusting. God made us sexual beings, so sexual feelings are natural and good. Whether it’s lust depends on what you do with these feelings. But being tempted to sin doesn’t equal sin; even Jesus experienced temptation.
When you experience sexual desire, thank God that He made you a sexual being. Your sexuality is a good thing, even if it’s a source of temptation for you at times.
See related: For Singles: How to Handle a Strong Sex Drive in a God-honoring Way
2. Recognize Disordered Desires
That said, since we’ve fallen into sin and our bodies, minds, and spirits are sinful from birth, the sexual desires we have are often sinful. The great Christian thinker Augustine talked about “disordered loves.” Having “disordered loves” means that we often love things we shouldn’t or love things more than we should. This pertains to much more than just sex, but it certainly includes our sexual impulses.
When we have a sexual desire that is out of line with God’s Word, this tells us we’re either already lusting or on the verge of lust. Remember James 1:14—lust begins with evil desires in our hearts. Lust always pushes us to disobey God’s commands. As soon as we recognize these desires, we need to surrender them to God before they can take hold.
3. Check Your Self-Gratification Meter
God designed sex as a beautiful expression of self-giving love between a husband and wife (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). When you have sex with your spouse, the goal should be giving pleasure, not just taking pleasure. This is why so many married people struggle with pornography; porn is about taking.
Lust can enter a marriage if a husband or wife loses sight of this. An example would be pushing for sex without consideration of the other person’s desires. Or it could be turning to pornography and masturbation because a spouse is sexually distant. Whether you’re married or not, a good question to ask is this: Are your sexual desires motivating you to self-giving or self-gratification?
4. Ask Whether You’re Taking What Doesn’t Belong to You
We noted the close relationship between lust, greed, and covetousness. Why is this? Because more than just sexual desire, lust is about the desire for something that isn’t yours.
When I was engaged to my wife, I often wondered whether I was lusting or simply experiencing sexual desire. A helpful question for me was, “Am I taking something that doesn’t belong to me?” The sexual desire was fine, but if I was trying to gratify those desires with my fiance, whether physically or through fantasy, that was wrong.
We can ask the same question about the things we see browsing the internet, watching movies, or even talking down the street. When I look at this person or image, am I taking something from them—i.e., sexual pleasure—that doesn’t belong to me?
5. Honestly Assess Whether You Feel Grateful
I said the first step thing you should do with your sexual desires is to thank God for them. This probably seems counter-intuitive, especially if you’re someone who battles with lust. But it’s very important. A lack of thankfulness always begins the spiral into sinful lust (Romans 1:21). Gratitude helps identify lust as well. 1 Timothy 4:4 says, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”
Here are some scenarios where you might want to use these five questions:
- A friend shows you a pornographic video. You look away, but you keep thinking about it later.
- You’re watching a movie and a sex scene comes on. You wonder whether you should look away or not.
- Your boyfriend/girlfriend wants to start getting more physical in your relationship.
- You find yourself spending a LOT of time on social media, especially browsing pictures and videos of beautiful celebrities.
Will God forgive the sin of lust?
You may be thinking, “Yikes, I’m struggling with lust what can I do?” First, you need to know that God will forgive the sin of lust. God forgave Eve for lusting after the fruit. God forgave David for lusting after Bathsheba as well as the other terrible sins he committed against her and her husband.
See related: Will God Forgive Me for Watching Bad Things?
We have the wonderful promise in the Bible that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive them (1 John 1:9)! Maybe you’ve been struggling with pornography and masturbation. Know that you can find forgiveness and freedom through God’s grace!
See related: Will You Go to Hell for Watching Porn?
What Are Triggers for Lust?
From Genesis 3, we learned that a person lusts when they see something that is pleasing or desirable and follow those desires against God’s command. We’ll look in a moment at dealing with those desires. But there’s another way to avoid lust, and that’s simply steering clear of the things that trigger you.
Eve made the mistake of hanging around the tree and spending time looking at it, even those she knew she wasn’t supposed to take the fruit. She opened herself to temptation. We often do the same thing.
2 Timothy 2:22 says, “Flee from youthful passions [lusts], and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
The first step to overcoming lust is to run from the things that trigger it!
How to Overcome Lust
So, how do you overcome the sin of lust? There’s a lot involved, but here are some simple steps.
- Stop watching pornography. To get started, see How to Quit Porn: 6 Essential Steps.
- Stop thinking about pornography.
- Get a friend to keep you accountable for what you watch and what you think about.
- Learn to practice gratitude for what God has given you.
See related: 3 Biblical Strategies for Fighting Lust